It was a huge task. Chelsea, who were on a run of 13 successive victories in the Premier League and were looking seemingly unstoppable in their charge towards the league title under Italian Antonio Conte, traveled to White Hart Lane looking to cement their place at the top of the table.
In a Christmas period which saw many of Chelsea’s rivals slip up in the title race, the game at White Hart Lane which took place on Wednesday was seen by many as a decisive fixture in this year’s campaign. In the end, it was Mauricio Pochettino’s hugely impressive Spurs side which came out on top, winning 2-0 thanks to two headers from player of the moment Dele Alli which saw them end Chelsea’s winning run.
Pochettino’s decision to play 3 at the back formation, which switched to a back 5 when defending, was a tactical masterstroke by the Argentinian coach, whose stock continues to rise with every game that passes. The key to Spurs’ success on Wednesday night was down to a number of factors – the main one undoubtedly being the ability to stop Chelsea’s deadly duo Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. The excellent performances of Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele stopped Matic and Kante from asserting their dominance in the centre of midfield, which is where many of their attacks have started this season. In wing backs Walker and Rose, who are two of the best in Europe currently, it enabled Spurs to attack with width, but have the legs to defend against Chelsea’s counter attacks with Alonso and Moses out in the wide positions. This ultimately left Hazard and Costa isolated and with defenders such as Alderwiereld and Vertonghen free to concentrate on man marking the threats, it turned out to be a relatively comfortable night.
Conte, a manager who is famed for coaching his teams to be rock solid defensively, will be disappointed at how Spurs managed to take the lead, then score a second using the same tactic both times. In Cesar Azpilicueta, a left wing back who has been playing on the right hand side of a back 3, they have a clear weakness in that area due to his lack of height. Will Conte look to the now-fit again Kurt Zouma to fix this issue, or was it just a bad day at the office for the usually reliable Spaniard? Regardless of what happens, Spurs exploited the weakness superbly for both goals, with Eriksen floating a ball to the far post leaving Dele Alli to head home on each occasion.
So, with Chelsea’s winning run now at an end and the gap at the top now cut to 5 points clear from Liverpool in second, is the title race back on? Whilst Chelsea are still seen as the overwhelming favourites in many peoples opinion to win the Premier League, the game against Liverpool at Anfield on January 31st is looking as though it will be one of the most important games of the season. With Liverpool finally looking like the real deal under Jurgen Klopp and Anfield being one of the trickiest away games of the season for any team, many people will fancy the Reds to cut the gap at the top even further. However, it is worth noting that with the January transfer window now open, Chelsea’s deal to sell Oscar for £60m to Shanghai SIPG means they have significant funds to spend to bring in players which Antonio Conte believes will strengthen his squad. There has been talk for months of a top class midfielder making the switch to Stamford Bridge, with Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, PSG’s Marco Veratti and Bayern Munich’s Arturo Vidal all mentioned. This could ultimately prove to be the decisive factor between Chelsea and the rest of the teams in the hunt at the end of the season, if they spend the Oscar money wisely.
Looking at the best of the rest, Arsenal’s mid-season stutters seem to have returned, with a 3-3 draw at Bournemouth underlining many people’s beliefs that they just do not have the conviction needed to get over the line each year, despite having a squad capable of it. The body language of Alexis Sanchez before and after the Bournemouth game will be a huge worry to Arsenal fans, who will be desperate to keep the Chilean onside as he is the key cog in a title challenge for the North Londoners.
Manchester City, despite the huge talent pool and coaching team they have, look as if it may be one season too soon for Guardiola to win his first League title in England. Whether he will actually even still be at Manchester City next season following his outburst after the Burnley game remains to be seen, but the Spaniard is clearly unsettled at the Etihad Stadium currently. Getting key man Sergio Aguero fit and firing again will be a priority for Pep, who also needs to decide whether to stick or twist in the transfer market following Ilkay Gundogan’s knee injury which will keep him out for the majority of the season. Talk of Julian Wiegl, the Borussia Dortmund defensive midfield wonderkid has been mentioned, but whether the German club would allow one of their prized assets to leave half way through the season to join a Champions League rival remains to be seen.
The other team in the top 6, Manchester United, have put together a very good run of form under Jose Mourinho, but still remain in sixth place currently. However, anyone with an interest in the Premier League over the last decade knows that when a Mourinho team hit their stride, they are very difficult to stop and with the talent and resources the Portugese has at his disposal at Old Trafford, I would not be surprised if they put together a second half of the season surge to really put the pressure on Chelsea and Liverpool. It is no coincidence that the upturn in United’s fortunes also coincides with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba settling down and playing their best football to date at the club. Talk of a £30m+ swoop for Benfica central defender Victor Lindelof looks set to be sealed soon and with talk of club legend Patrice Evra returning to the club as a left-back option, Mourinho’s side looks set to be strengthened further heading in to the spring.
One last observation; I have never seen so many Liverpool fans tweet #COYS on Wednesday. Title Race? It’s on.